There is a legend that when God was handing out land to the nations of the world, the Georgians were so busy feasting that they lost their place in the queue and there was no land left for them. But when they invited God to join the party, he enjoyed himself so much that he gave them the best bits of land that he had been saving for himself.
We visited a number of families, ostensibly to see how they produced wine or made cheese, but everywhere we stopped we were greeted by the most amazing hospitality and generosity. Meals would last several hours and involve large quantities of superb fresh food along with overflowing glasses of wine and chacha (grape vodka). Most houses we visited grew their own grapes and made their own wine. Many had a still.
Toasting is a tradition in Georgia. You don’t tend to drink at your own pace, but at the behest of a toastmaster (tamada). A merikipe is on hand to make sure that glasses are always full and the wine never seems to stop flowing. Georgians toast their enemies with beer (we had a hilarious enemy-toasting session with our guide one night) – it is wine and chacha that are appropriate for feasting. We didn’t go to a formal grand feast (supra), but had many, many meals at guesthouses and family homes and we followed the toasting tradition each time. Meals are designed to last the evening – they comprise several scrummy dishes laid out on the table. Everyone just helps themselves and offers food to their dining companions. And, of course, every meal included a ubiquitous, delicious and calorie-loaded cheese pie (khachapuri).
At regular intervals throughout the evening the tamada proposes a toast. Everyone adds their wishes and much wine/chacha is consumed. If you are toasted, it’s appropriate to thank everyone for their good wishes and later ask the tamada if it is okay to reciprocate with a toast of your own. One guesthouse supplied us with a jug (probably about 4 bottles worth) of strong homemade red wine made from the Sapaveri grape, which was utterly splendid and eminently drinkable, to accompany the enormous evening meal they had provided. We ate with the family. Our driver was both tamada and merikipe and led the toasting throughout the evening. (At the end of the day, naturally, when no further driving was required.) On finishing the jug our driver, an excellent merikipe, asked if we wanted more wine. We said we’d join him in a tipple but only if he was partaking, not realising that he would return with another 4-bottle jug. Gulp.
You can toast anything and everything. We were toasted several times as ‘easy guests’ (people who were thoroughly enjoying the trip, didn’t make a fuss, and were always on time) as well as ‘guests that didn’t go to bed at 9pm but were happy to stay up late feasting and enjoying the hospitality of our hosts.’ We reciprocated by toasting our hosts, Georgia, Georgian hospitality, wine, food, family, friends, finding Mr Right (for our guide), young people, old people, men, women, happiness, health, friendship between our countries, anything. We easily knocked back the second jug. Amazingly we weren’t hungover the following morning. Just as well as we were due to visit three different vineyards for wine tasting – hair of the dog and all that. We did rather stagger round the Kakheti region that day.
What we didn’t realise until the last day was that we had been doing the toasting all wrong. We’d been having a sip/swig from the glass per toast which seemed to us to be the best way to regulate the drinking (we’d copied our hosts, who had the same idea). Apparently we were supposed to drain the wine/chacha glass each time. Oops!
The Dead Sea is one of the strangest places on the planet. It is a salt lake located in a depression at the lowest place on earth, over 400m below sea level. Bordered by Israel and the West Bank to the west and Jordan to the East, it also has an odd microclimate, 10⁰C warmer at the Dead Sea coast than the rest of the country. And it really is dead. At around 35% salinity it can’t support any life. Any unfortunate fish that happens to swim in there from the river Jordan lasts but moments. But there is no activity on the water either – you don’t see any boats or water sports. The water is so saline it basically destroys machinery. The only thing you can really do there is bathe. And bathing in the Dead Sea is undoubtedly an experience.
The north end of the sea is mainly comprised of resort hotels of varying degrees of poshness, which have private beaches where you can do all sorts of spa type stuff, and the rest is rather beautiful coastline. We travelled along the shore on the Jordanian side.
There is a pillar of salt, considered by locals to be Lot’s wife from the biblical story.
We decided to stay at a resort hotel for just one night. The resorts on the north coast in Jordan are fairly isolated and you are pretty much tied to the activities and restaurants there. For example, it’s difficult to eat at establishments outside the resort and outside restaurants are more likely to cater to tourists rather than offer local fare. Our hotel had its own beach located about a two minute drive via a free shuttle bus (if you were lazy) or a ten minute walk from the swimming pools. Initially we wondered why there were pools when the purpose of our visit was to swim in the sea but it became clear later when we bathed.
Dead Sea mud contains all sorts of minerals that are supposed to do wonders for your skin. And, like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, you can buy a plethora of products containing miraculous mud at hugely inflated prices that are guaranteed to help you achieve eternal beauty. Or something. We headed down to the beach and caked ourselves in free mud from a bucket by the water’s edge before heading into the sea.
It is impossible to sink in the Dead Sea. You walk in and keep walking. And then, when the water is about at chest height, you take another step and realise that you should be able to touch the sandy floor, but you can’t, yet the water is still at chest height. The easiest way to bathe is simply to float in a sitting position. It’s very comfortable. If you want to move around, sculling gently seemed to produce the required propulsion. We didn’t take pictures of ourselves reading books or anything but it really would be perfectly possible.
It is also impossible to swim in the Dead Sea. When trying to do a simple breast-stroke you are so buoyant that your bottom kind of flips up, pushing your face into the water, which is a really bad idea because if you get any water in your eyes it stings like crazy. You know that feeling when you’ve been chopping chillies and forget to wash your hands and then brush your eye? That burning agony? Well, it’s ten times worse if you splash Dead Sea water in your eye. The water feels oily and hurts like hell. When you emerge from the sea you really need to shower off quickly and get all the salt off your skin and bathing suits. Any fabric splashed with water becomes stiff as a board and encrusted with salt. Fresh water showers are located on the beaches, not far from the shore, so that you can clean up quickly.
We’re not convinced that the mud did endow us with youth and beauty but bathing was an most definitely an interesting experience.
What was truly beautiful was the salt-encrusted shoreline.
We did wonder whether Dead Sea salt was edible as most sea salt can be used for seasoning and preserving. However, the merest (accidental) taste of Dead Sea salty water will confirm beyond any doubt that in its basic form it tastes revolting. The mineral composition is very different to standard sea salt, and tastes extremely bitter, so processing is needed to remove these in order to ensure safe – and tastier – use for human consumption.
(Incorporating the easiest recipe in the world…)
Lebanon is a really compact country. It’s so easy to get pretty much anywhere from its capital Beirut within a couple of hours. Lebanon is about half the size of Wales (the standard international unit for country size), has the most fantastic Mediterranean coastline and, moving inland, also boasts wonderful mountain ranges within just a couple of hours’ drive of the sea. Apparently during the winter it is possible to go skiing in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon.
The coastline has settlements dotted along it every 50km or so from north to south or indeed from south to north; this distance apparently being about a day’s journey for local sea traders in ancient times.
From Tyre in the south, close to the Israel border, where you can explore ancient ruins on land and gaze as they disappear into the sea; they are from a time when sea levels were much lower.
Sidon, with its crusader castle (with a mosque added later in the Ottoman era).
Beirut is a fascinating city with a turbulent history. Again, located on the coast, it has a waterfront promenade called the Corniche, with two remarkable rock formations rising from the sea. They are called Pigeons’ Rock, which seems wildly inappropriate given their splendour. Rock of Raouché, for the neighbourhood they are located near, feels like a more suitable moniker.
A day trip to the north of Beirut will take you to the cities of Byblos and Tripoli. The latter has the most amazing citadel – Citadel of Raymond de St Gilles which was built in the early 12th century. We were able to explore it, climbing over the extensive site and admiring the view from the ramparts.
The city itself was fun to explore and we have happy memories of wandering through the nearby souk (marketplace) where stallholders would come out of their shops to say hello (with absolutely no pressure to buy).
We spent a night in Byblos. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, it is thought that it has been occupied since 8800BC. It is thought that the word ‘bible’ is derived from Byblos. It is a fascinating town to explore and has a castle and a number of museums.
There are a number of bars and restaurants by the harbour area.
A local restaurant right by the harbour offered mezze, which we had long wanted to try. The location was perfect.
Mezze is often described as middle-eastern tapas – a selection of small dishes shared by everyone at the table. Amongst the many dishes on offer we had creamy hummus heavily laced with tahini and drizzled with olive oil, smoky baba ganoush (aubergine dip), crispy falafel (deep fried chickpea fritters), foul (bean stew, pronounced full, not fowl!), spicy, herby kibbe (small meatballs of lamb mince and cracked wheat) with multiple salads. All of these dishes were accompanied by salad, olives, flat breads and a very big bowl of chips. Of course there was too much to finish. We needed to take some back to the hotel for snacking on the next morning.
As the sun set over the glittering Mediterranean, we ordered a couple of beers in advance of the main mezze attraction. After all, it was going to take a little while to prepare our feast. Our friendly host offered us a pre-mezze snack as he prepared the food.
It’s the easiest recipe in the world: Cut carrots into sticks, squeeze lemon juice over them and sprinkle with salt.
It’s a perfect – and really delicious – accompaniment to a nice cold drink. And probably the healthiest bar snack in the world. It’s something we eat regularly with or without beer.
Jerash is within easy 50-ish km drive of Jordan’s capital Amman and its Roman ruins are some of the best preserved in the world. The site makes for a fascinating day trip; covering a very large area it is possible to wander all over the city. It is definitely worth finding a guide who can point out all the features and explain the history and the architecture, especially as there aren’t many signs or information points, although beware as they may encourage you to buy stuff you don’t really want to buy from various vendors who can be found waiting for tourists.
The arch of Hadrian (who had already started construction of the wall in the north of England) was erected around 129-130 AD , when the Emperor visited Jerash.
The hippodrome was an enormous arena which was used for chariot races and gladiator fights. Sometimes chariot races are re-enacted in the space. Sadly, not when we visited.
The colonnaded forum, an area designed as a marketplace but used for social gatherings, including important political meetings, is stunning. Its oval shape is very unusual.
The nymphanium, a monument to the nymphs, was fed by an aqueduct.
It’s possible to walk down the roman street, also known as a cardo and as straight as Roman roads are reputed to be, again lined with columns. The road’s surface is original.
There’s an amphitheatre where you can stand on the stage and let your inner thespian out. Even if you don’t feel up to a full performance of your favourite speech, it’s worth standing on the stage and just speaking – the acoustic design of the theatre ensures that your voice can be heard with remarkable clarity, even normal speech levels.
And at the end of a day’s exploration, you are likely to be peckish. We were. Amman has some really excellent restaurants so on our return to the capital we went to Habibah to eat Kanafeh.
Er, we did. Georgia (the one that’s always on my-my-my-my-my-my-my-mind, not the one where the midnight train goes) is famous for feasting. It is thought that wine was possibly invented in Georgia. And we all know that the thing that goes best with wine is cheese*.
We ate cheese every day on our trip. It felt like our arteries had the consistency of Primula by the time we arrived home but it didn’t matter – all the cheese was utterly delicious. We tried many varieties including Meskh cheese which was like cheese strings, but not made of nasty chemicals, Imeruli cheese, a mild, tasty and very holey number from the Imereti region which can then be made into Sulguni which is most popular in the Samegrelo Region. We visited a family who demonstrated how to make Sulguni and then offered us lots of it with an unexpected feast for lunch. Georgian hospitality is simply unsurpassed.
Much of the cheese we consumed involved tasting the regional variations of the national dish – cheese pie or khachapuri – which was served at pretty much every meal we ate. Each pie contains about 150,000 calories but don’t worry, it’s worth it. The pie itself is bread based rather than pastry based and filled with varying amounts of cheese from the relatively modest Imeruli pie which merely contains cheese inside the pie, to the more decadent Megruli which melts a few pounds of cheese on top, just in case the cheese inside doesn’t quite satisfy your cheesy cravings.
Imeruli is the most common type of cheese pie.
We ate this with most meals in central and eastern Georgia – the capital Tblisi and its surrounding regions.
The western part of Georgia lies on the Black Sea cost. Batumi is a resort and is clearly a party town.
It was in Batumi that we discovered the Acharuli cheese boat, a monster from the Adjaran region. In keeping with Batumi’s flamboyant style, this is the daddy of cheese pies. It comprises a bread dough crust in the shape of a boat, filled with local cheese plus a raw egg and is topped off with an enormous knob of butter. You have to mix everything up (the egg cooks very slightly and the butter melts away so that you can pretend that it wasn’t there in the first place) so you end up with very buttery cheesy scrambled egg in a massive boat shaped piece of bread. It was suggested at the restaurant that we order a boat each. We insisted that we share one. One was more than enough but oh, so delicious.
*Actually, it isn’t. Cheese tends to dull the palette, so if you’re serious about tasting wine you’re better off not eating anything at all and keeping your tastebuds in tip-top condition. But, of course, if you’re just out to have a good time, wine and cheese together is a delightful combination and entirely wonderful.
Middle eastern desserts are not only delicious they are also quite addictive. One of the defining elements of the desserts we tried in Jordan was the sweet, sweet syrup that soaks into and pervades the pastry or dough that forms the base. The sweetness is probably a good thing as it does limit your ability to scoff vast quantities of these scrumptious desserts.
The magic ingredient in Kanafeh is cheese. Kanafeh comprises pastry or dough, saturated in syrup and layered with a very slightly salty cheese, traditionally nabulsi or akkawi, which adds a comforting and savoury contrast to counterbalance the sweetness. Kanafeh can take a variety of forms – some use vermicelli type noodles as the base, others a pastry type dough. The syrup can be flavoured with rose or orange water to give a light fragrance to the dessert.
Habibah in Amman have been in business for several decades. It’s easy to see why. Their kanafeh is superb.
The kanafeh we tried was based on a pastry dough with layers of cheese. Topped off with pistachios for crunch and a nice green colour, and served warm, it is an absolutely delicious way to round off any meal. Or you could just order a really large portion and eat that instead of a meal – it’s worth it.
The Nagorno Karabakh region of Armenia is an area where there is territorial dispute with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Although it had been a war zone a cease-fire had been established in 1994 and the local guide felt that it was safe to visit. Along with a group of other visitors we were invited to visit the Noravank Monastery and the hotel we had been staying at threw in a picnic lunch.
Noravank is a beautiful monastery, built in typical Armenian style. It contains a number of buildings, the dominant structure of which is Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). As with many Armenian monasteries there are a number of khachkars – carved stone slabs which bear a cross – which can also been seen around the complex.
When we arrived we discovered that we weren’t the only visitors. A local family were gathered together around a makeshift table and were clearly having a celebration. A fleece lay draped across the branches of a tree, a sheep having been slaughtered at the site and was now roasting over a fire.
We know how we would feel if a coach-load of tourists turned up to a family celebration, that is, a bit miffed. But Armenia is still a relatively unusual destination to visit and, when we visited, tourists were rare. We were welcomed with open arms.
We had no idea what event the family were celebrating. We could speak about seven words of Armenian and they could speak no English. The family beckoned to us to join them. Of around twelve visitors in the tourist group, only we and one other joined the party. Such a shame – the other nine missed out on a fantastic party, totally their loss. (You can see the grumps in the background of the photo below, sitting on a hill, waiting for their hotel picnic and watching us having a good time.)
The family had clearly prepared – they had brought 40 buckets of home-made wine with them and they generously plied us with drink. We were offered barbequed lamb so fresh it had been bleating just hours earlier, flat breads, pickled walnuts, the freshest salads and fruit. All delicious. Food always tastes better with friends, even if you have only known them for minutes.
This happened over 20 years ago. We still have the most remarkable memories of that afternoon; of a most delicious meal, of gorging on wine, toasting a group of strangers who had been kind enough to invite some foreign visitors to their party, of being made to feel unbelievably welcome. We could not speak their language, they could not speak ours. We had no idea about what the correct etiquette was but we learned that day that communication does not have to be verbal. What we could express was our gratitude with a huge smile, a raised glass and a farewell hug. We may have been picnicking in a conflict zone but our experience quite simply reflected the very best of humanity.